Thursday, April 27, 2006

Coffee Sustainability=physics?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to strive after sustainability in coffee. Obviously there is the economic justice element (i.e. fairtrade etc., producer/origin focus ) but sustainability involves a lot more than just paying farmers a fair amount. Why has the focus on origin overshadowed our efforts toward sustainability in our own shops/roasting plants/homes? Maybe it hasn't but there certainly isn't a lot of noise made regarding running our businesses in sustainble ways.
It seems to me that it's really sexy nowdays to show pictures of smiling farmers and tell stories about all the great things done to improve quality of life in producing countries but what about the producers of all the other products we in the coffee industry consume? Are sugar producers worth less? What about people that work at the chemical plants that produce all the poisonous crap (cleaning products) a lot of us use daily in our businesses?
I think it's easy to focus only on sustainability issues surrounding coffee because it is the focus of our business but does that mean the other stuff is inconsequencial?
I tell my customers and staff all the time that when you insist on OG/FT/SG etc. coffee, your buying power is in such contrast to the traditional model of commercial coffee consumption that you are surely rocking the coffee boat (if only a little). I take great pride in providing a pathway for coffee lovers to choose coffee that makes a positive difference in the lives of ALL the people that touch it.
Those of us willing to make certain sacrafices (more$,less selection,slow to change cert. systems, waning interst?)to purchase and provide these types of coffees need to ask if there are other sacrafices that need to be made to strive for whole-business-sustainability.
It's easy(er) to make sacrafices that you can flaunt (FT/OG etc) but what about things that aren't readily marketable like using only recyclED paper (for printing,brocures,cups,napkins,TP, what else?) We're willing to explore every avenue to improve coffee quality what about overall quality?
It's expensive to do some of these things compared to the easyway (cheap Cash&Carry paperproducts/cheap refined sugar etc.) but great coffee is expensive compared to Folgers. We talk a lot about educating costomers about what it takes to create great sustainable coffee, what about great sustainble businesses?
So what does this have to do with physics? I'm not totally sure but I think...something. I was invited to give a talk on 'Fair Trade' coffee at a local synagogue last week and I spoke about an interesting parallel between Hebraic thought and what 'sustainability' as a business model is about: right relatedness.
My take on Jewish law (speaking as a Gentile) as it has developed from Torah through the Talmud is that adherence to a set of standards of living are meant to keep spiritual beings in balance with the material world. I think this ideas can be applied to many religious and ethical systems but Judaism is a prime example. For right or wrong, these laws (Kashrut or Kosher laws were the context for my being invited to speak) are an attempt to keep people in balance with other people, beings(animals,plants), and objects(stuff,possesions). The goal is to achieve "right relatedness" that is exist in a state where all things are in proper proportion to all other things. This may be a bit oversimplified and wishy-washy but I think it accuratly reflects the thrust of not only Hebrew Law but often laws in general. Whether structure and control (law) is the best way to achieve balance is extremly debatable.
This begs the question, where does the notion of balance/proportion come from? Well, often what is 'right' is determined by those in power for the pourpose of power maintainence. Though this idea of balance/relation may be coopted (all to frequently) its origins are plain enough...nature. Physics.
Physics (Newtonian certainly but also quantum, though it may be beyond our grasp) is the study of relationships. Whether its magnets placing themselves in proper relationship to one another or gravity placing objects in thier place, physics is about forces acting/reacting to create a balance of one sort or another.
Quantum physics as well, is about achieving a balance between implicate and explicate realities (Bohm,Whitehead). In this area we may not be able to measure the relationship as easily but it certainly seems that there is some sort of pattern in the chaos (or it IS the chaos not understood or misunderstood).
This is where I see the energy driving sustainable coffee (and sustainbility in general) for me. Striving for sustainability is striving for that balance, that right relatedness.
Now some people may say, "What about entropy?" "What about destruction?" Well, I see entropy's conclusion as the ultimate balance. If entropy is about smoothing-out differences then so is coffee sustainability. Allowing value to be proportional to all links in the chain. Obviously there is a great amount of subjectivity here, but I see certain paralleles.
So, all of this to say that attempting to acheive sustainability in just one part of the chain may create a greater imbalance (and therefore greater stresses) in other parts. Sustainability isn't sustainable if it is not Whole. There would be no coffee business without coffee but there is more to the coffee business than just coffee.


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